By David D. Busch

The TIFF format originated in 1987 with a company called Aldus, which developed pioneering graphics and layout programs such as Freehand and PageMaker. Intended as a standard file format for images, TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) incorporates descriptors called tags, which you can use to provide parameters for any special features included in the file.

Theoretically, an application could include any kind of information it liked in a TIFF file — such as layers, objects, special color information, and selections — and tell any other application attempting to read that TIFF file how to retrieve the special data.

In practice, the TIFF format’s versatility ends up making it possible to create “standard” files that not all the applications that have to work with them can read, which isn’t an advantage at all. TIFF files run the gamut (ha!) from RGB (red, green, blue), CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black), and L*a*b color models to black-and-white and grayscale images.

It supports both 24-bit and 48-bit (high dynamic range) color depths, and it can be squeezed down without losing any picture information by using optional Huffman encoding, LZW, or PackBits. (If you don’t know what some of these formats are, consider yourself lucky; they aren’t important for day-to-day shooting.) Adobe acquired Aldus in 1994, and today Adobe offers options for saving Photoshop layers and selections right in a TIFF file.

To make things even more interesting, some of the RAW formats are actually TIFF files that have some headers that transform them from standard TIFF into a vendor-specific format that requires special software to read.

Keep in mind these two important TIFF-file facts:

  • TIFF files are lossless. They don’t discard any of your image information.

  • TIFF files are much larger than JPEG and RAW files. The larger size can increase the time it takes for your camera to store them on a memory card. In my tests, files that take only a few seconds to write to a memory card in RAW format can take 20 seconds or more as TIFF files.

The third most important thing to keep in mind is that fewer dSLRs offer a TIFF option these days; most that do are professional-level cameras, such as the Nikon D4, which shows both TIFF and NEF (Nikon’s version of RAW).